Native American Heritage Month
You’ve probably heard the names Sitting Bull, Sacajawea and Squanto. But what about Patty Talahongva, Charlene Teters and John Herrington? All of these individuals have been instrumental in the growth of our nation. One way we can start recognizing the many Native American faces present throughout our history is through the celebration of Native American Heritage Month. Or you may have heard it referred to as American Indian Month and Alaska Native Heritage Month.
No discussion of Native American Heritage Month would be complete without mentioning a few key players. In the early 1900s, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, persuades the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day to celebrate the “First Americans.” Around the same time, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rides from state to state on horseback, collecting signatures from 24 state governments endorsing a day to honor American Indians. In 1915, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, president of the Congress of the American Indian Association, issues a proclamation. It declares the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. This proclamation is also the first formal appeal for recognition of Native Americans as citizens.
The following year, New York becomes the first state to honor American Indian Day. Other states, excited to celebrate the rich and diverse culture of Native Americans, set aside the fourth Friday in September. And in 1990, President George H. W. Bush designates November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Now every November, we have the honor of recognizing the incredible contributions the first Americans made to the growth and establishment of the United States. We also celebrate the work of modern Native Americans in our society – proud Native Americans sharing their ambitions and their heritage with the rest of the world.
Would you stand up if everyone told you to sit down? Susan La Flesche Picotte always speaks truth to power, even in the face of criticism. Growing up on the Omaha Reservation in the 1870s, La Flesche witnesses a tribal woman die after the local white doctor refuses to treat her.
Seeing a need for native medical care, La Flesche trains as a physician. And in 1889, she becomes the first female Native American physician in the country. Dr. La Flesche treats all patients equally, promoting disease prevention and modern hygiene. An advocate for racial equality, La Flesche promotes better health care for all Americans.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
Do you know anyone who exemplifies resilience? By the time Jim Thorpe is 16, he’s lost both parents and his twin brother, and struggles in school. But in 1907, he discovers an outlet in high school sports. In the spring of 1912, Thorpe begins seriously training for the Stockholm Olympics.
Later that year, Jim is the first Native American to win gold despite running 1,500 meters in mismatched shoes! Though his medals are initially revoked due to violations of amateur eligibility rules, Jim’s legacy goes far beyond medals. Through sheer grit and determination, Thorpe becomes known as one of the greatest athletes of 20th Century.
Did you ever move as a kid? Upon graduating in 1976, John Herrington has moved 14 times! John grows up in an era when most Native Americans are encouraged to suppress their cultural backgrounds. But his Chickasaw mother insists that John enroll in the tribe to better understand his heritage.
In 2002, he honors his heritage in a new way. As the first Native American astronaut, John carries traditional items from his tribe into space. Today, John works tirelessly to engage the Native American community in the sciences, and continues to represent native culture on an international stage.
Have you ever been rejected by your peers? Maria Tallchief is a revolutionary Native American ballerina who overcomes skepticism to pursue her passion. In 1942, Maria joins the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, the troupe is unwilling to acknowledge her achievements since she’s a minority, treating Maria as an inferior. But this doesn’t stop her talent from captivating audiences!
She’s named prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, becoming the first Native American dancer to ever hold this title. Through dedication and a no-quit attitude, Maria shows the world that race shouldn’t be used to predict what another can or can’t achieve.
Have you ever felt empowered to uncover the truth? In the 1970s, Patty Talahongva, a Hopi woman from Sichomovi village, attends Phoenix Indian School where Native Americans before her suffer oppression of their language, culture and religion. It’s this environment that fuels Patty to pursue a career in journalism, dedicating her life to representing others in an authentic light.
And in 2002, she becomes the first Native American to host a national news program. She covers Native arts, education, politics, crime and health. Patty’s innovative journalism brings to light the accomplishments and lives of Native Americans.
Do you know the thrill of driving 230 miles per hour? Cory Witherill does! Cory is introduced to racing at 12 years old and immediately develops a passion for the sport. But in the early 1980s, he suffers multiple crashes. Doctors advise Cory to stop racing before damage becomes irreparable. But with a dream to become a famous racer, Cory doesn’t give up.
Crowds cheer in 2001, when Cory debuts as the first full-blooded Native American in the Indy 500. His fame makes him a role model for Native American children, proving that hard work and dedication mean the same to every race.
Are you familiar with Rosa Parks? Artist and activist Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian, is seen as the Rosa Parks of the American Indian Movement. Her work as an activist begins in 1989 at the University of Illinois. Confronted with the university’s stereotyped Native American mascot, Charlene protests sports games.
This sparks a nationwide debate that challenges us to look at the consequences of Native American stereotypes. Charlene opposes the use of Native American imagery in sports and media, empowering a movement of understanding and protection of cultural identity.
November is an excellent opportunity to educate ourselves on the practices, principles and historical sacrifices made by our Native American neighbors. It’s our chance to raise awareness of the current challenges facing 5.4 million people. This series continues to explore the work of lesser known Native Americans throughout history, highlighting role models and everyday heroes that can inspire each and every one of us.